A case in point is glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup. Although environmental groups are bitterly opposed to its use, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), echoing the findings of other international bodies, announced earlier this year that the Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) found that ‘the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.’
The use of glyphosate has long been a thorny issue in the EU. In July 2016, member states agreed to extend limited approval of glyphosate for 18 months pending the report from the ECHA. The vote was not unanimous, however: France and Malta opposed re-approval of the chemical, while Germany was one of seven countries to abstain on the issue. However, now that the jury is back in, and glyphosate has been acquitted, the European Commission has taken the unusual step of saying last month that it will only extend its approval for glyphosate if there is sufficient consent from the bloc’s 28 member states. Make the decision yourselves, and own it, essentially. It is a tactic that could easily end up backfiring, however, and is undoubtedly borne of frustration that the European Commission is so often used as a handy fall-guy for the difficult decisions that member states do not want to make themselves.
For instance, both France and Germany want Europe to take the heat for reauthorisation because of domestic politics. German environment and agriculture ministers are currently at loggerheads and refusing to back down on the issue, meaning that it would be much more expedient for Germany that if a decision on the substance came from without, rather than within, its own parliament. And it’s a similar story in France, where newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron shocked the political class by appointing famous environmentalist Nicolas Hulot as his country’s environment minister. Known for his strident views on pesticides and nuclear power, his appointment has people scratching their heads about whether this is a bold indicator of the likely direction for Macron’s government or just a bit of light greenwashing to keep environmental activists happy. Again, set against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that French lawmakers are privately hoping the final decision on glyphosate is taken out of their hands.
The European Commission, however, is not willing to grasp this particular nettle. Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who is responsible for food safety, has underlined that the institution will simply not approve glyphosate for the next ten years without sufficient support from the states themselves, saying, “While I have no reason to doubt this substance is safe, I want to make it clear the Commission has no intention to reapprove this substance without the support of a qualified majority of member states. This is and will remain a shared responsibility.”
But media coverage of his pronouncement has papered over a poorly-understood reality: the fact that major EU decisions are in the hands of the member states. The Parliament is composed of directly elected representatives and the Council is made out of national leaders, and both can block decisions. Far from laying down the law, the Council deals with the tasks and decisions that member states have assigned to it.
The Commission’s demand for a qualified majority on glyphosate exposes this reality. However, to be fair, the EU should have addressed this blame game years ago. Perhaps then it could have put a halt to what the New York Times has called the “endless stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels” that stem from British tabloids, which for years have gleefully characterised the EU as a power-hungry despot with a fetish for standardising the shapes of fruit and vegetables. The result was Brexit. And the UK is by no means the only country to view the EU through such a cynical lens.
As a result, this time around, the European Commission is fighting back – but it is probably too little and too late. If France and Germany do succumb to pressure from their domestic “green lobby” and reauthorisation of glyphosate fails, then they will end up with exactly the type of misguided, populist decision that Europe is trying to avoid.
In Ireland, for example, experts have warned that a ban on glyphosate could cost Irish tillage farmers around €30m a year in lost cereal yields, in what a leading professor from University College London called a potential “hammer blow” for the already struggling sector. What we can be sure of is if this comes to pass, fingers across the continent will once again start pointing at the European Commission, blaming it for a decision that was utterly out of its hands.